Blog: Dave LeggettBiofuels seminar

Dave Leggett | 21 September 2007

The biofuels seminar I attended yesterday was worth the aggro of the long drive up the A11 to the venue just outside Norwich. There were presentations looking at the big picture (not all positive – eg deforestation, land use) as well as some more technical material.

A presenter from Ford made some good points concerning fuel duty differentials for E85 and regular fuels (full article). It sounds like the flex-fuel market in the UK might well implode before it has really got going unless someone at the Treasury has a change of heart. Sweden might be at the forefront on encouraging biofuels with incentives, but other countries in Europe are apparently now adopting similar policies.

But biofuels aren’t a silver bullet. We know that there is competition for land between crops for food and biofuels, right? And that a whole lot of land would have to be turned over to biofuels to make a dent in the share taken by fossil fuels in transport. We got an estimated quantification of what that means in one presentation.

So here’s the sixty-four thousand dollar question: how much of the total land used for crop cultivation (cereals, oilseed, sugar) would be needed to be turned over to biofuel crops in order to achieve a 10% biofuel share in transport fuel consumption? For EU15 countries, it has been worked out at 72%. Current share is 0.8%. That kind of puts things in perspective.

Same figures for the US are 30% and 1.6%. Things get a little better with the so-called ‘second generation’ biofuels that will use more of the plant.

But the whole energy/CO2/GHG (that’s Green House Gas) debate is a big one to have and the transport sector is just a part of the picture. In terms of the global GHG position, land use change (mainly deforestation in the tropics) is having a bigger impact than transportation.

And what about nuclear? One nuclear plant off the north coast of Scotland or a million wind turbines in the North Sea, or on the horizon when you look out of the window?

Getting back to transport and the auto industry, do the carrots and sticks to encourage people into smaller and also cleaner vehicles need to be drastically rebalanced?

It depends how serious we are about showing a lead, at least, I guess. To simply say it's too late, the damage is done, so let's just carry on seems extraordinarily irresponsible and fatalistic.The Chinese and Indians are industrialising and nothing can stop that. But we perhaps have a better chance of getting them to ease off the GHG pedal a bit if we curb our energy profligate ways.  

Dave Taitt laid out a challenge which is kind of daft when you think about it: can an OEM actually make a car that is both smaller and lighter than its predecessor? They just keep on getting bigger and heavier (loaded with more and more stuff that the OEMs say the consumer demands; or blame EU pedestrian safety legislation). The Volkswagen Golf is a great example. Polo has overtaken Mark 1 dimensions now I believe.

Mind you, we are getting bigger aren’t we? (Let's not go there.) 

My thanks, by the way, go to GM’s UK press people for lending me a Saab 9-5 estate BioPower just for the occasion. It made the A11 more bearable than my regular transport. There was also a sense of closure when I found one of the nation’s rarer-than-rocking-horse-shit E85 pumps at the Morrisons supermarket in Norwich down by the river. The pump was padlocked to stop people who don’t know any better filling their tanks and messing their engines up. I had to go and get the key. But hey, who said being green was easy?

Did I notice the improved performance when the E85 went in (half the tank, effectively I was on E40)? To be perfectly honest, no I didn’t. But some people do say I drive like a wuss. The 9-5 seemed sprightly enough on regular unleaded. 

And finally a point on hybrids/plug-ins. If the technology coming is either a) complex or b) costly, it will have little appeal in the rapidly motorising and price sensitive emerging markets. That's where a small low-cost battery with a short-range but allied to a petrol engine to boost overall vehicle range could perhaps find a sizeable role and help lower the transport sector's overall GHG contribution. 

EXCLUSIVE: UK bioethanol market to stall without fuel duty cut – Ford


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