Fuel of the future

Camilla Anderson talks to James Beal of Renewables East, a company at the forefront of the drive to convert motorists to the cause of biodiesels

The AA is predicting that Britain’s road traffic will double by 2025. Given that 26% of the UK’s carbon emissions stem from road transport, this is bad news for a government which would like to see a 60% carbon emissions reduction by 2050. The pressure is on, therefore, to minimise the sector’s environmental impact.

James Beal is Managing Director of Renewables East, a not-for-profit company which supports and drives the renewable energy sector across the East of England. He is acutely aware of the need to execute a dramatic switch from traditional fuel sources. “The simple message,” he says, “is that continually increasing carbon emissions from road transport is offsetting effective activity to reduce carbon in other sectors. Biofuels offer an intermediate solution on the pathway to a hydrogen future, while increasing fuel security and creating jobs in the rural community.”

Defining terms

The term biofuel is a generic one used to describe liquid or gas fuels which are not derived from petroleum-based fossil fuels, or at least contain a proportion of non-fossil fuel. Biofuels fall into two main categories. Conventional biofuels are produced from plant crops such as sugar beet or wheat for ethanol and rapeseed oil or reprocessed vegetable oils for biodiesel, while biogas, which can replace compressed natural gas, comes from gasified biomass.

Bioethanol, produced by fermenting sugar and starch crops that have been converted into simple sugars, has been used in Brazil since the 1970s. Brazil is now the world leader in bioethanol, putting 100% sugar-based fuel into more than half its new cars. By contrast, the European record is abysmal: 98% of transport fuels used are oil-based.

“Current best practice turns out crop-based biofuels that offer significant carbon savings in excess of up to 70% compared with mineral oil-based fuels,” Beal says. “A blend of just 5% bioethanol in petrol would equate with the carbon savings of removing one million cars from the road.”

Used in 5% blends with conventional mineral diesel, biodiesel behaves almost identically to conventional diesel.

Bridging technologies that make use of existing infrastructures are crucial in making the transition to alternative fuels. “In contrast to technologically immature innovations such as hydrogen fuel and fuel cells, which are still at the development stage, low biofuel blends can reach the customer very easily through the existing fuel distribution networks and do not necessitate expensive engine conversions,” says Mr Beal.

The main challenge for commercial biofuels has been to produce the fuel cheaply enough to compete head-on with petrol and diesel on the garage forecourt. In Germany, Australia and Ireland tens of thousands of people are running their cars on vegetable oil with the blessing of their governments. In July 2002 the Government here reduced the tax on biofuels by 20 pence per litre to encourage their production and use. The non-mandatory EU Biofuels Directive sets a target of 2% transport energy from biofuels by 2005 and 5.75% by 2010. In reality, the UK could reach 0.3% this year, but the prospects for 2010 hang largely on a decision the Government is expected to take soon – whether to introduce a ‘Transport Fuels Obligation’, similar to the Renewables Obligation in the electricity generation sector, which would mean fuel suppliers must meet the Brussels target by 2010.

Supermarket revolution

Meanwhile, Tesco has followed Sainsbury’s lead in offering biodiesel on its forecourts. In Austria there are fleets of buses running on 100% biodiesel. Meanwhile the CRED (Carbon Reduction) project at the University of East Anglia (UEA) is trialling a range of biodiesel blends in buses and other vehicles in Norfolk as part of the EU-funded Civitas project. Also in the East of England, Renewables East are working on building a pathfinder project for vehicles using E85 bioethanol.

Ford will soon be introducing Focus Flexifuel models which emit up to 70% less carbon. The vehicles have already achieved massive success in Sweden, where 80% of Focus models sold are Flexifuel versions, thanks to hefty government financial support.

On the day he stood down as Non-executive Chairman of Shell, Lord Oxburgh told delegates at a conference that Shell is the largest vendor of biofuels in the UK. The oil giant, he said, considers biofuels to be an important part of the business which will continue to grow. Beal adds: “We are offering a solution that reduces emissions and enhances corporate reputation without any consequences on fuel price or performance.”

For more information contact [email protected].

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