Blog: Dave LeggettToo good to be true?

Dave Leggett | 5 September 2005

Bioethanol strikes me as one those rare propositions that seems almost too good to be true - like low-fat chocolate (which, regrettably, just does not taste anything like as good as the full-fat stuff). Making fuel to run vehicles from organic matter, with no (or at least, little) net CO2 discharge, after allowing for the photosynthesis effects of the plants' growth, in the fuel's production or its subsequent use? Sounds pretty good doesn't it? In Sweden, the raw material for the fuel is wood pulp, which is in plentiful supply of course. In Brazil, sugar cane is used.

And the Saab bioethanol cars can even run happily on petrol if need be (like the flex-fuel cars in Brazil). And there's no performance compromise with the Saabs either. Surely, one may think, this package keeps the good old ICE firmly at the top of the automotive powertrain technology pile (we don't even have to worry about the refuelling infrastructure hitch which sinks BMW's liquid hydrogen ICE solution for the foreseeable). Fuel-cells in twenty years? Pah, this is now!

With the still low volumes involved, some tax incentives are needed from the Swedish government so that the extra costs are not too high for the vehicle manufacturer. Fair enough. That's not unusual for start-up technology.

But how far could bioethanol catch on? And where's the catch and why is this solution - and biodiesel too for that matter - not being lauded as a major force for the future?

I suspect the answer is that bioethanol can only be a marginal player or we'd have to turn over vast tracts of the countryside to its production. Sunflower and rape seed fields as far as the eye can see. It perhaps is well suited to Sweden because it's a low population density place with immense forestry resources. Plus we're only talking about a few Saabs for now (though that Avis order is certainly encouraging). The quantities of biofuel needed make it much more problematic when scaled up for mass-market consumption. Land is a very scarce resource in much of the developed world. And the substitution of one lot of photosynthesising plants with another lot for biofuels doesn't exactly give us the right net CO2 result either. (But if someone thinks I've got that wrong, then please let me know - I'd be happy to be back in 'where's the catch?' territory.)

I was reminded of the nuclear power debate here and the emergence of renewable energy sources for electricity production in Britain (mainly wind farms). Some of the numbers involved are pretty sobering. What would you prefer, a medium-sized nuclear power plant (zero CO2) tucked away as far away from people as possible or the sight of some 2,000 50ft tall wind turbines situated just off the coast?

SWEDEN: Saab BioPower receives Avis backing with 400-car fleet order


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