Biofuel - friend or foe?

Posted in Pollution Control

Chris Chandler of Fleet Audits believes strongly in the benefits of biofuels and its long term potential but warns of its limits, particularly without the right Government incentives


There are many suggested solutions to reducing the environmental impact of vehicles, be it hybrid technology, hydrogen fuel cells, pure electric power or biofuels. Some of these technologies are already here, like hybrids and pure-electrics, although in limited model choice. Other technologies such as hydrogen fuel cells are still realistically some 20 to 30 years away before they even stand a chance of commercial viability and operational practicality.
It is therefore becoming abundantly clear that there are a number of various environmental solutions that will provide differing levels of market penetration. These solutions will arrive at different times and have varied shelf lives. To look for one single fuel type or technological solution that could provide a global “green” solution to our transport needs seems to have been all but written off.
With hydrogen such a long way off, and pure electric vehicles still having some significant limitations, biofuels are increasingly being seen as an environmentally friendly alternative to fossil fuels that can be introduced now, and remain through the short to long term.

The story so far
With the ability of all diesel cars to run on biodiesel mixed at 5 per cent with standard diesel without any modification or warranty problems there is a clear benefit of biodiesel in low percentage blends. Many supermarkets and independent forecourts are actually selling a 5 per cent blend as regular diesel.
For higher blends some manufacturers have specific models that can run on 30 per cent biodiesel. Peugeot stands by its warranties on ALL HDi Peugeot engines for up to 30 per cent bioblend, as long as the source of the fuel is from a recognised and reputable supplier. Anything over the 30 per cent blend tends to require a specially modified vehicle; for example, vehicles running on 100 per cent vegetable oil require pre-heating systems in the fuel tank to reduce the fuel’s viscosity.
Bioethanol – the biodiesel equivalent for petrol vehicles – is also available at a 5 per cent blend with regular unleaded petrol at a number of supermarket sites, but again if you exceed the 5 per cent blend a modified vehicle is often required.
Ford and Saab have now brought to market “Flex-fuel” models that are able to use E85 (85 per cent bioethanol and 15 per cent regular unleaded) with little or no price premium for the vehicle. The only real downside is the bioethanol has a lower energy content so a vehicle running on E85 will typically have a reduced fuel efficiency of some 75 per cent of that of standard unleaded.

Renewable aspect
Therefore, the outlook for biofuels as a partial solution looks promising. In low blends existing vehicles can use the fuel and there is an affordable option to run on higher blends.
The benefits are many as these fuels can reduce dependency on fossil fuels, provide fuel diversification and reduce CO2 emissions, as the tailpipe CO2 emissions can be part offset by the CO2 absorbed by the plants/ trees the fuel comes from during their growth. Most importantly though is the renewable aspect of this fuel allowing a potentially sustainable transport fuel.
To this end the Government has drawn up the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO) that pledges 5 per cent of all road fuels in the UK to be biofuel by 2010/11. An advisor to the NUF has gone on record to state that the diversion of exported wheat surpluses could be channelled to biofuel. The utilisation of land that has been set aside and fallow could also help meet this 5 per cent target along with some improvements in farming methods. But this will only take our biofuel quota up to the 5 per cent level, it would not dramatically reduce our dependency on fossil fuels. To better this output we would have to squeeze our land set aside for food crop production, or we would need to look further a field for sourcing biofuels.

Well to wheel
This, however, raises the issue of the sustainability and environmental profile of other biofuel sources outside of the UK. There needs to be consideration of the “Well to Wheel” approach, ensuring both the CO2 profile is beneficial and that the environmental impact of the production processes are minimised.
For example, the most effective crop for biodiesel is palm oil, but currently great swathes of rain forest are being cut down in Malaysia (estimated to be some 10 million hectares by Friends of the Earth) in order to meet our green ambitions for our vehicular needs. This not only threatens the orang-utans who are losing their habitat under this mass deforestation, but also provides little environmental benefits regarding CO2 as the forest that is removed was absorbing CO2 in the first place. A classic case of one step forward, how many steps back?
For bioethanol there are similar problems on the horizon. Where bioethanol can be produced from food crops such as wheat, there is a fear that some poor countries may find their farmers selling their wheat to foreign countries for bioethanol rather than supplying their own population with food, as there will undoubtedly be more profit for them in biofuels.
So we have a huge dilemma – a potential solution to reduce our CO2 emissions and increase fuel sustainability as well as diversification via biofuels, but equally the potential for environmental disasters elsewhere in the world to enable us to drive endlessly with a clear conscience.

The source of fuels
Effectively, there will be a number of sources for these biofuels, and into the future there will be the introduction of “second generation” biofuels, such as biomass-to-liquid (BtL), synthetic gas-to-liquid (GtL) and coal-to-liquid (CtL). They will have a reduced dependency on farming as they can be produced from a far greater range of plant matter including waste products.
But there will always be pressure on land and crops/plant matter to produce road fuels in the huge quantities demanded by the UK, Europe, the USA and other countries. Therefore, we need to focus on the various biofuels and their production efficiencies and environmental impact to ensure we are actually deriving an overall positive environmental solution.
The Government needs to focus on not just the type of fuel, but also the source of these fuels, be they first generation biofuels such as biodiesels from oil seed rape, palm oil, recycled cooking oil and bioethanol from wood and plant mass, or second generation biomass-to-liquid (BtL). If the Government is to ensure the successful implementation of biofuels they will require some form of tax incentives.

Tax breaks
At the moment biofuels for road transport do receive reduced fuel duty rates, but this does not consider the type of fuel or its origin. I believe the tax breaks for biofuels should be based on an indexing system where there are funds available for the planting and production of biofuels in the UK. These will encourage farmers to use fallow land and plant biofuels in rotation to firstly provide a sustainable fuel source and secondly to ensure biodiversity by preventing the whole of the UK disappearing under a sea of rape seed oil. If the Government can provide the right incentives maybe the UK could produce a significant quantity of biofuels and reduce the reliance on imported biofuel.
Grants for the growth and refining of biofuels in the UK will increase fuel security and reduce the need for transportation of fuel around the globe, but where the additional volumes of fuel are needed the Government must not just focus on the blunt duty rate reductions but provide those tax and duty reductions on the environmental profile of the fuel and its source. This may be complex and require some considerable effort but if the Government is to be truly green and not just concentrate on balancing the books, a true well to wheel based approach must be adopted. Only then will we be able to know our biofuels are in fact good for the environment, and that it is not costing a poorer country its food supplies or causing deforestation.  I am sure there will be other countries that will not question the source of biofuels, and just consider the price, but that is the difference between many who pretend to be green as opposed to those who are truly green.

Achieving long term potential
So are biofuels actually good? On the whole I believe they are. They provide an excellent opportunity not only to reduce CO2 emissions but also to improve fuel supply security and sustainability. However, biofuels are not the whole solution but one of a number of solutions. We will be limited by supply and importantly we need to ensure that there is an overall environmental benefit of the biofuels. From the growing of the crops through the refining and transport of the fuel to the actual delivered mile, the whole process must be environmentally efficient and effective.
The goal surely has to be to ensure all vehicles run on at least 5 per cent biofuel as soon as possible. Then we can look at ways of increasing the percentage of the blend whilst minimising the need for modifications to the vehicles, especially as there are already manufacturers such as Peugeot who already allow 30 per cent biodiesel in all their HDi engines (dating back to 1999). The fuel must, however, be affordable and green, and it has to be the Government’s responsibility to create the correct tax and duty structure that will promote the continued expansion of biofuels and ensure they are able to achieve their long term potential.

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