Fleet News

Return of the biofuels?

After five years struggling to prove their environmental benefits, biofuels are back on the agenda.

Early last decade, biofuels were heralded as an answer to our short-term fossil fuel problems.

Generous subsidies for their development were introduced against a backdrop of European grain mountains and payments to farmers to set aside arable land.

Carmakers like Saab, Ford and Volvo launched flex-fuel vehicles, which run on bio-ethanol E85 or petrol.

Many environmental groups hailed their arrival as a new revolution in green motoring.

But then food prices rocketed by 40% and, in 2008, the Gallagher Review warned about the risks biofuel development presented if left unchecked.

In Europe, a vocal anti-biofuels lobby questioned the environmental benefits of the new fuels and whether we should be growing fuel rather than food.

Since then, biofuels and the framework governing their production – in Europe at least – have been developed with sustainability at their centre.

Now, in the UK almost 1.6 billion litres of biofuel are used annually, accounting for 3.33% of our total road transport fuel.

According to the Renewable Fuels Agency (RFA), this has resulted in carbon savings of 51% compared to petrol and diesel - roughly equivalent to taking half a million vehicles off the road.

The biofuel is blended into diesel and petrol before it reaches the pumps.

Now third and even fourth-generation biofuels are now being developed. And the sustainability of these new generation biofuels is being assured by the RFA and the impending European Renewable Energy Directive.

These new generations are being developed to use bi-products of current land crops, such as wheat straw, residues from sugar beet processing and off-cuts from the wood industry.

This means it is no longer a question of food or fuel – now it is food and fuel.

Biofuels will not replace or slow the adoption of electric vehicles or plug-in hybrids or, eventually, hydrogen fuel cell cars.

But they are here now, can be used in vehicles in small amounts with no conversions and in large concentrations – 85% - with only minimal conversions and these biofuels are an environmentally-sound way of continuing to use current vehicle technologies and the refuelling infrastructure.

“It has been a riot working in the biofuels market over past six years,” Ian O’Gara European biofuels lead at Accenture told a packed Westminster Energy, Environment and Transport Forum biofuel conference. “But I do believe biofuels will become a global industry.”

He points out that it will be at least 10 years before other technologies – like EVs and plug-in hybrids - begin to challenge liquid fuels.

“There will not be one winner – there will be multiple winners and biofuels will be one.”

But while Brazil, the US and increasingly China are moving quickly to biofuel use, Europe is lagging behind.

In Brazil, 15% of its energy comes from just 0.4% of its land.

“While there has been rapid growth in many countries, in Europe there has been stagnation,” says Dr Jeremy Woods, lecturer in bioenergy at Imperial College London.

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