Parsing Deloitte’s analysis of the sugar beet boom and its relevance for the European bioeconomy
In September 2014 Deloitte released the report “Opportunities for the Fermentation-based Chemical Industry,” a look at the potential to develop the European value chain based on sugar feedstocks. The focus is on Northwest Europe but relevant global market conditions are considered. The report provides some analysis of price dynamics and non-financial investment considerations (sustainability, regulations), with the purpose of making the case for the prospective industry. But given the tone of advocacy, the underlying story is not always clear. It’s worth considering several critical questions:
- What is the fundamental driver of the proposed new bio-based fermentation industry?
- How likely is this new chemical production to emerge?
- What would be the industrial structure of a fermentation-based chemicals boom?
- What implications might it have for the lingo-cellulosic bioeconomy?
Critical question 1: What is driving this story?
While the Deloitte report does not begin there, the reason that the potential development described is relevant is the impending change in European quotas for sugar production and export. The report projects approximately 5MT of new production from 2017 – a 38% increase from 2014 levels. Feedstock requirements would be met by farmers switching to beets from wheat and other grains, and by continuing yield improvements. Some of this sugar would displace the costliest imports for food uses, and the remainder would be available for export (the current quota of 1.15MT will be removed) and for other domestic uses.
Essentially we have a supply-driven change to consider: The EU is likely to produce more of a valuable good, and that is likely to lead to new business of some kind. But what business?
Critical question 2: Where is this excess sugar likely to end up? Are chemicals the likely destination?
New sugar production could generate new value through four basic channels:
- Domestic food uses
- Commodity export
- Ethanol production
- Functional molecules
The report makes no projections as to how much of this new sugar will be exported, but rather focuses on the possibilities for added-value uses in the EU, particularly fermentation-based functional molecules. The opportunities for developing this industry are examined in depth, and the economics of production from EU sugar beets contra global sugar-based alternatives were analyzed (though the financial details are not revealed).
But what of the allocation of new sugar to various uses? What factors might steer producers and investors in one direction or another? One simple set of considerations might be:
- Economics: What are the margins associated with a given use of sugar, and how competitive are the costs?
- Capital requirements: Will a given use require significant new investment downstream of sugar production?
- Market potential: How established and deep are markets for the products?
- Risk and Uncertainty: What is the nature of the risks and uncertainties faced by companies and investors if they choose this direction?
These qualitative judgments are based largely on the information provided in the report and a common-sense assessment of different market fundamentals. More thorough research should be done about different specific business cases. But at a high level, this kind of logic can help us understand the basic appeal of different options. Domestic sugar sales are a no-brainer but they will not absorb the kind of volumes described in the Deloitte report. Export markets will be an obvious port of call for those seeking a quicker outlet and happiest with commodity risk. Ethanol is uneconomic and untrusted … but the market is there today. Chemicals offer greater upside but the kind of uncertainty that requires entrepreneurial risk taking: production and value chain configurations are poorly understood, and volume producers may need to believe that they can create new demand by displacing fossil-based alternatives.
Critical question 3: If functional molecules are going to be produced, what will the value chain look like?
Assuming that the economics of functional molecules from fermentation are attractive, what would be the likely configuration of the production process and thus the value chain?
The Deloitte report focuses on the generic trade-off between the purity of the sugar feedstock and the costs of fermentation.
The curve above is indicative and for incumbents existing capacities will affect their preferences. Nonetheless, Deloitte’s own financial modelling indicates that “In most cases, starting fermentation from an intermediate product is more attractive and makes the process economically viable.”
This is an important judgment, because it implies a certain logic to integration between sugar production and fermentation for chemicals. This is especially the case given Suiker Unie’s claim that raw and thin juice can only be fermented from within the harvesting and processing ‘campaign’ due to decay. Thus more options to execute purity/price tradeoffs will be available to companies that integrate sugar production and fermentation.
There is also an indication in the Deloitte report that the attractive economics of bio-based fermentation is based on the ability to valorize side-streams. Indeed the processing chain illustration below considers integrated biorefining from sliced off beet tails to be one of these valorization options.
Critical question 4: What impact would an emerging sugar-based fermentation industry have on lingo-cellulosic biorefinery concepts?
The issue of process/value chain integration increases the potential relevance of bio-based fermentation to lingo-cellulosic biorefinery concepts. What are the issues that could be important to consider?
Sugar market: New demand or new competition? A growing bio-based chemicals market should, all things equal, generate demand for sugars, including (potentially) C6 sugars from lingo-cellulosic feedstocks. However, if process chain integration is pursued, fermenters may have a captive supply of cheaper low-purity sugars and (potentially) be able to capture some of the same value from side-streams available to L-C refineries.
Chemicals market: Depending on the interest and willingness to invest in process chain integration, sugar producers/refiners may become direct competitors with L-C based refiners, producing specialty chemicals, fuels, etc. based on similar concept.
Equipment/process/technology market: Process integration could create demand for the equipment and technology. While the overall volumes of sugar beets might be limited in relation to ligno-cellulosic material, the integrated economics of sugar production and fermentation could serve as a ‘lead market’ for lingo-cellulosic biorefining technologies.