Friday, 20 April 2007

Bioethanol and the Road to Sustainable Development

A fascinating day-long seminar on this subject at London's Imperial College today - I'm grateful to Saab for putting me on to this.

Several contributors from government, the private sector and the academic world explained the role of bioethanol in tackling climate change and future fossil fuel shortages. I can't possibly do all of the arguments justice here but I've picked out what I think are a few of the most interesting aspects.

The first thing you notice at any event on this subject is that a lot of the speakers are Swedes. That's because Sweden has aggressively embraced bio-fuels - the Swedish prime minister declared that the country would be independent of oil would by 2020, although it was a car dealer that got the ball rolling by importing suitably specced American Ford Tauruses in the nineties. This gave Ford an early lead that it was able to build on with bio-capable versions of the Focus produced in Europe. Saab is the other main player with the BioPower versions of its 9-3 and 9-5 models, while Scania has been promoting the use of bioethanol in bus and truck engines that operate on diesel principles. One of the best customers for buses running on bioethanol has been Stockholm's public transport company; buses with Scania's third generation ethanol engine - which should equip it to tackle longer out-of-town journeys - are eagerly awaited there. A Scania bioethanol bus trial is imminent in London too. Not every lesson from Sweden can be applied here, of course. The country has a low population density and a large forestry industry, for example, although I was slightly surprised to learn that the Swedish market uses bioethanol from Brazilian sugar cane (Brazil is the other trailblazer in the use of bio-fuels). I had thought the feedstock for Swedish bioethanol production was cellulose derived from the timber industry; this is however, expected to play a large role in future. Nevertheless, the Swedes' efforts put those of most other countries to shame.

An interesting snippet of information came from a representative of OKQ8, a fuel retailer with a 27% market share in petrol and a 40% share in bioethanol in Sweden - while flex-fuel cars that can run on E85 (a blend of 85% bioethanol and 15% petrol) get all the headlines, most of the use of bioethanol in cars in Sweden so far is accounted for by the small amount of bioethanol - 5% - that is added in to standard unleaded; this blend can be used by cars without modification. Bioethanol can already be added to standard unleaded in the UK I believe, and the forthcoming Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO) will require us to be 5% renewable by 2010.

Another important point is that different sorts of bio-fuels are not all equally beneficial in their impact. Thanks to the work of academics like Dr Jeremy Woods at Imperial we seem to be getting a better understanding of the differences between so-called 'bad bioethanol' and 'good bioethanol', which is a function of a host of factors such as the crops used, the processes used and the extent to which fossil fuels are used in production and distribution. The UK RTFO can't stipulate that only good bioethanol be used as this would be against world trade rules. However, companies will have to document the provenance of their fuels under RTFO, and it will be up to us to keep them honest with our fuel buying decisions.

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