Cut carbon — and confusion

How realistic is the 10 per cent biofuels target called for in this month’s European Commission energy package? Christopher Macgowen responds on behalf of the motor industry.

Few doubt that biofuels can deliver more sustainable motoring. However, some of the basic facts are not widely understood. Biofuels need to be fully integrated into a sustainable motoring strategy, and an understanding of the key issues should be the starting point for all.

The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders believes that biofuels have an important part to play as part of an integrated approach to reducing real-world carbon dioxide emissions from road transport as they are refined from a renewable resource and can already be integrated into the fuel supply. Today’s road vehicles are able to operate a five per cent blend of biofuels in petrol and diesel, creating immediate CO2 savings across not only new cars but also all vehicles, using the existing refuelling infrastructure.

Biofuels offer the potential to reduce a vehicle’s well-to-wheel emissions by up to 80 per cent. However, the carbon savings and cost can vary significantly between different fuel options, depending on feedstock, the production and conversion process and use efficiency. Conventional biofuels such as ethanol from wheat are now capable of reducing well-to-wheel emissions by between 7-77 per cent. Second-generation biofuels — expected post-2010 — promise to optimise these saving potentials further.

The government plans to introduce incentives for the production and use of sustainable biofuels, with high carbon savings, as part of its Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation (RTFO). This mandates that by 2010, five per cent of all the road transport fuel sold in the UK must be biofuel. The 2006 Pre-Budget Report detailed these measures, where the correct level of price incentive is required to ensure the target is met. After 2010, to meet the commissions’ proposals, the motor industry will be looking to the government for guidance and support in higher biofuel usage.

The motor industry welcomes the RTFO and, alongside past investments to ensure the five per cent biofuel compliance of all current cars, is investing in research and development of vehicles that can run on higher blends, such as E85 bioethanol or B30 biodiesel. There are already variants on sale.

For these vehicles to succeed, however, fuel companies, government, and the motor industry must work together to ensure biofuels are readily available. To date there are about 12 refuelling stations across the UK providing E85 biofuel, which hardly provides ease of supply to the consumer.

Governments of other EU member states, such as Sweden, provide strong promotion for biofuel. Major tax relief is available at the pump and for company car drivers, and free city parking encourages drivers into environmentally-friendly cars. Other states are looking at a reduction of vehicle excise duty by up to 50 per cent. The motor industry can deliver the technology to use biofuels, but it is up to government to give a clear lead for the future. Significant and long-term fuel duty incentives will encourage biofuels into the UK market place and help establish them as a long-term alternative for the motorist.

Finally, considering the commission’s proposed 10 per cent blend by 2020, five per cent blend biofuels will be easily introduced at the pump with no need for consumer education; these fuels are already covered under the UK fuel quality standards, and engines are designed for their use.

However, beyond that and we venture beyond the fuel standard limits. The motor industry is working with the fuels industry and governments to develop these standards, and by 2020 a 10 per cent standard will exist. But problems could occur with older vehicles only designed for five per cent blends.

Introducing the higher blends at filling stations used by older, non-five per cent compliant vehicles could lead to confused customers, more fuel grades and more nozzle colours. The motor industry has worked hard to minimise the chance of mis-fuelling and is concerned that plans for the introduction of future biofuels allow motorists to reduce their carbon without increasing their confusion.

Christopher Macgowan is chief executive of Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders