By 2020, the EU requires 10% of road transport energy to be generated from renewable sources. As electric cars are still in their infancy, this goal must be achieved through alternative fuel solutions for existing road vehicles. Several countries have approached this by introducing the use of E-Fuels, a mixture of petrol and bioethanol. Although this meets the regulations, reduced fuel economy, increased food prices and deforestation are significant concerns. Is introducing E-Fuels actually beneficial, or just to meet regulations?
E-Fuels – For
It is the simple truth that our society cannot continue our reliance on fossil fuels indefinitely. At current rates of consumption, we are likely to exhaust oil reserves in as little as 40 years. A dependence on imported fuels has in recent years led to massive price fluctuations impacting UK drivers. Therefore, anything we can do to reduce a reliance on fossil fuels is a positive change.
Biofuels are a key development in the transition away from fossil fuels towards sustainable fuel alternatives. Ethanol fuel mixtures are an easy and sustainable way of prolonging the limited oil supplies. The burn process is much cleaner than conventional fuels, leading to lower harmful emissions, such as particulates and toxic gasses, per unit of fuel. The Australian Medical Association states “There is incontrovertible evidence that the addition of ethanol to petrol and biodiesel to diesel will reduce the deaths and ill-health associated with the emissions produced by burning those fuels”.
The carbon dioxide released during combustion is offset by the amount captured during crop growth. According to the US Department of Energy, this leads to a 52% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared to gasoline production and use.
Currently there are very high ethanol blends, such as E85 (up to 85% Ethanol), being used in high performance vehicles, due to its higher octane levels. In the future, engines designed to take further advantage of this could yield greater benefits for everyday motorists. Although this is not feasible with current technologies, adoption of E-fuels into consumer markets would drive investment into research of more sustainable fuel options.
Are you going to need to buy a new car to run these fuels? Most have nothing to fear, 10% Ethanol fuel (E10) can already be used in 93.91% of cars in the UK. Not only do these fuels burn cleaner in your current car, but evidence shows ethanol mixtures can reduce carbon deposit build-up throughout the engine, keeping your engine cleaner and optimising performance.
How easily could this be implemented? Everything the UK needs is already in place; In fact, every time you go to the pump you are already filling up with anything up to 5% ethanol mixture, without even realising it. Industrial bioethanol is also widely used in products such as aerosol sprays and pharmaceutical products, and the pumps we use at the moment could handle higher concentrations without modification. With no infrastructure investment required, there are negligible costs to pass on to the taxpayer, and the consumer would see lower fuel costs overall. Producing fuel from crops in the UK and reducing importation of fuel would create growth in the British agricultural sector, improve fuel security and benefit the British economy.
E-fuels could very well represent the future of a renewable automotive industry.
E-Fuels – Against
National governments promote the use of ethanol fuel mixtures as a way of meeting mandatory targets for reduction of emissions, while decreasing their economic dependency on foreign oils by substituting it partly by ethanol.
This has an effect on car users, as not all cars are adapted to high ethanol rates in the fuel. If this were to be enforced, many drivers would be forced to upgrade to new cars which may be financially unviable for a large amount of people. Ethanol fuel mixtures are also less efficient than normal fuel, as the energy content of ethanol is about 33% lower, which leads to a higher fuel consumption. This again compensates the positive environmental impacts as the production of ethanol produces as much greenhouse gases as is saved by avoiding fossil fuels.
Additionally the production of ethanol increases the demand for land that would previously have been used for growing food. This may force countries to import food which disrupts the world market. This in turn pushes up prices for livestock feed and also leads to increasing corn market prices. As a result people in developing countries might suffer from not being able to afford this additional cost.
Even if plants for bioethanol can be grown in a sustainable way, the lack of food sources might lead indirectly to legal or illegal deforestation through third parties to solve these problems. This may have the result that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels instead increase.
Future efforts could focus on the usage of residues from food production for bioethanol instead of growing corn specifically for the production of ethanol. Focusing on methods combining food production with the reprocessing of the associated waste could avoid the risk of food and “fuel” plants competing against each other.
It would also make sense to adapt emissions regulations to focus on the volume of automotive vehicle traffic. This might include stricter restrictions on the fuel consumption of newly developed cars. This would be a more direct method of reducing carbon dioxide emissions than finding ways to marginally reduce the damage of our existing practices.
Research into sustainable energy sources would have wide reaching benefits for the rest of society as the topic of fossil fuels permeates the majority of human endeavours. This would be preferable to a continued dependency on fuels which compete with the production of food.
Lastly, governments could also support research and development of more sustainable energy sources such as micro-algaes which avoid competition with food production whilst having the potential to better meet sustainability targets.
Taking these arguments into consideration, we believe that it is necessary to revise current international regulations to provide a more holistic framework through which countries can effectively reduce their emissions in the long term.
39: James Leete, David Atherton, Hugh Wessel, Juliane Tröndle